Well, here we go again, another new year and another new season beginning in the vegetable garden! I really do love the fresh start a new season brings. Past blunders are forgotten and a fabulous new you waits, quivering and expectant at the starting blocks, ready to race off and achieve wondrous things. Hard evidence (gleaned over many years of this process, in my case 50 of them) suggesting few wondrous things will be achieved is pushed to one side, this year (like all previous years) is different!
Anyway, I hope you all had a good holiday. It may not have been ideal if you weren't able to spend as much time with your friends and family as you might have liked (although some of you may be thanking your lucky stars) but hopefully things will improve as the year progresses.
My holidays were spent clearing around the massive Quickcrop estate (all 3 acres of it) and preparing the fruit and vegetable garden so it isn't a panic when it's time to sow or plant. The photo above was taken on Stephen's day (or Boxing day depending on your preference) and shows clearing of a ditch where we lost a couple of trees in a storm. Seasoned readers will have been expecting a gratuitous shot of either the tractor or the Landrover so here she is, Solihull's finest, looking resplendent in the winter sunshine.
This photo has reminded me to be happy with what I have. If you had told the teenage Andrew that he would have a family (not pictured), a pretty farmhouse (on the left), a vegetable garden (in the distance over the bonnet) and an old banger of a landrover he would have thought all his Christmases had come at once yet here we are. Apart from straighter teeth and maybe a bit more hair on my head, I really couldn't ask for more.
Similarly, if you had told the teenage Andrew how happy he could be with a trailer load of cow manure, he may not have believed you but again, I find myself in raptures over the deceptively gloomy image above.
What is exciting about good manure or compost (and this is the very best from my organic beef farmer friend 'The Rare Ruminaire', AKA Clive Bright) is knowing what it can do. This modest looking brown pile will be responsible for growing crops of every shape, colour and flavour, it is the raw material for a healthy soil, healthy crops and ultimately, a (reasonably) healthy me.
I will cover soil improvement and how to keep the engine room of the garden in top condition later in the mail and next week but for now, let's have a look at some of the nosh available now in the winter garden.
Cauliflower Romanesco (or broccoli Romanesco depending on your preference) is a cross between cauliflower and broccoli (obviously) and produces heads that wouldn't look out of place in a 1970's episode of Star Trek. The main head was harvested in late December, the ones shown above are the secondary side shoots which are ready for picking now. If it was any other time of the year, it probably wouldn't make sense to leave Romanesco to produce side shoots but in January it is certainly worthwhile. This will depend on what the winters are like where you are as the curds will be damaged in a hard frost but it has been so mild here so far that we have had really good growth.
You would would think I doctored this photo for contrast but the vibrant bright greens of the Romanesco and the healthy hues of my pretty pink hands (note neatly trimmed nails as usual) needed no help to stand out from the monochrome backdrop. Remember that any of these homegrown heading brassicas are a real treat because the stem is actually the sweetest and juiciest part, especially when freshly picked. I would definitely recommend cauliflower/broccoli Romanesco for winter harvests if your climate allows, these chunky side shoots are delicious lightly cooked, better in my opinion than purple sprouting broccoli.
Another cauliflower, this time the biennial (sow in summer year 1, harvest in Spring of year 2) Alsmeer. I planted 6 late June sown seedlings in early July which have produced decent size plants so far (well, 5 of them did). If all goes well, I would expect the the plants to produce cauliflower heads in mid April which will be very welcome at a time when there isn't much else coming from the garden.
You can see in the photo that there is some trouble afoot with black spots on the older leaves which are beginning to spread to newer growth. This is the common fungal disease Alternaria which is worse than it normally is this year because it has been so warm, you will see it in all the photos of cabbage family plants.
Alternaria leaf spot is caused by the pathogens Alternaria brassicae and Alternaria brassicicola and is more of a problem in late summer and autumn in warm and damp weather. This year it has continued to spread because the weather has been so mild but also because I haven't been as vigilant as I should have been.
The disease can be kept at bay quite successfully by removing any older, affected leaves and putting them on the compost heap. As shown in my 'dirty laundry' photos, I have some work to do to try to temper the spread of the fungus otherwise it will be a problem when the cauliflower heads form in April.
Kalettes or Flower Sprouts
As you will no doubt be aware, kale is one of the heroes of the winter garden due to its ability to withstand temperatures as low as 10° C. Like the 'Capitata' members of the cabbage family (those with heads), the 'Acephala' branch (those without) includes plants that look very different to each other. The most popular kales include purple ribbed Russian Kale, dark green and blistered Italian kale and the traditional bright green curly kale.
A more recent addition to this family is the 'kalette' or flower sprout which is a cross between kale and Brussels sprouts (this is a natural cross, not a genetically modified plant) that results in a vegetable with desirable traits inherited from both parents. Flower sprouts are very hardy and vigorous plants which produce multiple mini kale plants along their stems in the same manner as the Brussels sprout. I think these plants are superb winter vegetables for flavour (like kale but with added 'sproutiness'), nutritional value (it is high in vitamins A, K, B6 and C and calcium) and convenience (the little kalettes sit on the plant for a long time and can be picked as you need them). If you haven't grown flower sprouts before I recommend them for next season, I will let you know here when to sow them (in the summer).
Building fertile soil
As we said earlier, a fertile, healthy soil will grow vigorous, healthy crops. Any efforts made to improve your soil will pay dividends as the plants you grow will need less (or no) additional feeds and will overcome most attacks by pests or disease. Just as a healthy, balanced diet keeps us fit and well, a plant needs a balanced diet from the soil to thrive. As far as the soil is concerned, a balanced diet means rotted or rotting organic matter (by organic I mean naturally produced rather than man made) added to the soil surface in the form of manure, compost, leafmould, seaweed or whatever you can get your hands on.
You can feed your soil at any time of the year whether you have crops growing in it or not but obviously it is easier when the beds are empty. Ideally bulky organic matter is added in the autumn which gives it the winter to break down fully but adding in January will still give it 4 months to settle before sowing or planting in April/May. Above we see my son Thomas reluctantly shovelling manure (is this what my life has come to?) in the polytunnel in preparation for tomatoes and cucumbers.
If you need well rotted compost for your garden, the absolute best product we have come across is 'Envirogrind', a compost made from green waste and fish waste. I have been to the facility where the compost is made and it is an impressive operation where air is pumped through large bays of material to ensure fast and thorough composting. We can supply this garden fuel in 20kg sacks or cubic metre bulk bags depending on how much you need (link below).
I would recommend adding a layer 4-5cm thick on the surface of the soil (this goes for Envirogrind as well as homemade compost, there is no need to dig it in, the worms and other soil life will do this for you over time. If I wasn't able to source the organic manure that I use I would (and sometimes do) add a layer of 'Seafeed' seaweed and poultry manure pellets first, approx. 200 grams per square metre, and then cover with envirogrind or compost. The nitrogen in the poultry manure will help the compost break down further and provide additional feed for your plants.
And finally, potatoes. If you are planting early potatoes, you will need to start 'chitting' or sprouting them in a few weeks by placing them in a bright, frost free place. Chitting brings the harvest date forward a couple of weeks by sprouting the seed potatoes before they are planted and which gives them a head start.
OK, that's it for now, I will see you next week!